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"There are two ways to slide easily through life," the noted linguist and mathematician Alfred Korzybski once said. "To believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking."

Those two paths-unquestioning belief and unyielding disbelief, fundamentalist faith and radical skepticism-have for years polarized the debate over religion. In its starkest equation, the polemic pits those who view reason as wholly antithetical to their beliefs, against those whose rationalism leaves no room for the mysteries of faith. But is there some middle ground?

FAITH & REASON asked writers, philosophers, and scientists to discuss that perpetual tension. Atheists like Salman Rushdie and Colin McGinn, agnostics like Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis, and believers like Mary Gordon and Sir John Houghton offered their views on religion, God, and reason, putting forward their thoughts and their visions for future understanding. "People will probably never agree about the large questions of life," says philosopher Colin McGinn. "What's important, I think, is that they hold their beliefs with the right kind of doubt and qualifications and they're aware that other people have different beliefs which they also believe in to the same degree."

"Most of my life is spent among non-believers, which is the way I like it," says author and practicing Catholic Mary Gordon. "I wouldn't like to be in a world where everybody was a believer and we all sort of fell back into this comfort zone of agreeing with each other all the time. I think there are many more good reasons for not believing than believing. [Religion] is a very strange thing, a very mysterious thing to believe."


Some of the world's most revered religious figures were, at one point or another, wracked by doubt — Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed all hesitated at times, unsure of their fidelity to their callings. In the Middle Ages, religious philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, Moses Maimonides, and Averroes began by doubting and used Aristotelean logic and reason to reaffirm their faith. Throughout history, doubt, it seems, has worked well for believers.

Mary Gordon: "The ability to question, the ability to take a skeptical position, is absolutely central to my understanding of myself and my understanding of myself as a religious person. It's very important to experience doubt. I think faith without doubt is just either nostalgia or a kind of addiction. And I'm not interested in that."

Sir John Houghton: "Knowledge is very limited. And to say you don't know is a very proper scientific statement. 'I may know sometime, but I don't know now.' And the same is true in the having of your faith. There are lots of things I don't know. And I have to remain ignorant or agnostic, whatever it may be, because I don't know. There are too many theologians and too many people out there who say, 'I know,' when there's no right to say that."

British author Jeanette Winterson has more than a passing familiarity with people who say, "I know." She grew up in a fundamentalist Pentecostal household where, she likes to joke, there were only six books-the Bible, and five books about the Bible. Here, she discusses her mother's strongly held beliefs:

"If you can believe [in creationism and the Apocalypse], everything else in the middle is actually quite easy. My mother was a creationist, and she did believe in Armageddon. She thought that the world would be rolled up into a fireball and Jesus would come back and she'd go off to heaven, and none of her clothes would be second-hand. [Fundamentalism] asks you to believe things which are completely impossible."

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"If there were no God," English author G.K. Chesterton wrote, "there would be no atheists." Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel quipped that his epitaph should read, "Thank God I died an atheist." Arguments, and bon mots, over God's existence, non-existence, and possible existence have consumed writers and philosophers for centuries. Here, guests on FAITH & REASON weigh in on the matter:

On Atheism
Salman Rushdie: "Yes, atheists are obsessed with God."

Colin McGinn: There are no, I think, intellectual arguments for the existence of God at all. The whole history of 20th century theology, of course, has conceded that point, because the whole history of it is the necessity of faith.You don't need faith if you've got reason; if God can be proved by reason, by the ontological argument or the cosmological argument or the argument from design, faith is not necessary to underpin the belief in God ...So you're meant to believe, for example, that God exists as a matter of faith.You believe in an existential proposition: God exists. And you believe it on faith, independently of evidence or argument. To anybody who's devoted to rationality, that's got to sound very strange."

On Agnosticism
Martin Amis: I wouldn't call myself an atheist anymore. An agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that [atheism] would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe ... Why is the universe so incredibly complicated? Why is it so over our heads? That worries me and sort of makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence. "

Margaret Atwood: "Atheism is a religion it makes an absolute stand about something that cannot be proven. A strict agnostic says you cannot pronounce as knowledge anything you cannot demonstrate. In other words, if you're gonna call it knowledge you have to be able to run an experiment on it that's repeatable. You can't run an experiment on whether God exists or not, therefore you can't say anything about it is knowledge. You can have a belief [in God] if you want to, if that is what grabs you, if you were called in that direction, if you have a subjective experience of that kind, that would be your belief system. You just can't call it knowledge."

Anne Provoost: "The love that I feel for my man — for my favorite, my beloved — is there. It exists. Nobody will doubt it. But nobody else sees it. Because I'm the only one in love with him....To me, religion follows the same path in the sense that God is there because he's there for the people that keep him in their heads. And they keep him as a sort of lantern to follow, to find the way."

Susan Jacoby, author and director of the Center for Inquiry, spoke with Bill Moyers in 2004 about the history of opposition to organized religion: "'Freethinker,' a great word. It first appears at the end of the 17th century. And what it meant was someone who opposed orthodox religion, ecclesiastical hierarchy ... Freethinkers were not necessarily atheists or agnostics although they were always called that. Isn't it funny that religious fanatics always call anyone whose religion is different from theirs an atheist."

listenHear more from Susan Jacoby (21:08) or read the transcript.
On Belief
In response to Bill Moyers' question about whether atheists and agnostics, who stand outside the experience of belief, have anything to offer the person of faith, Mary Gordon had this to say: "If it weren't for atheists and agnostics, there would be no Enlightenment, for example. And I'm immensely grateful for that. Many of the ideas which I most prize as an American, as a woman, as somebody living in a relatively free society have come to me from people who were agnostic or atheist. "

Richard Rodriguez, another believer, noted that he sometimes finds it hard to talk to non-believers about what his faith brings to him: "You learn in America to speak two ways. You learn in public discourse not to be very specific about your religious life. It is a general agreement that we will not talk about these things this way — will not talk about levitating — will not talk about this overwhelming experience of peace."

Sir John Houghton, scientist and believer reflected on his own theological thought process: "I ask myself that question [about the existence of God] quite often and say, 'Am I kidding myself? Is this all a great construct of my mind or something in my imagination - that is unreal?' But then I reflect on that. I say, 'I cannot escape, no way can I escape from believing God is there because he's very real to me in many ways.'"

"I usually call myself these days a freelance monotheist. I draw nourishment from all three of the religions of Abraham. I spend my life studying these faiths, in a sense I'm still a nun. I live alone, and I've never married, and I spend my life writing and talking and reading and studying spirituality and God. And I cannot see in essence any one of these three faiths as superior to any of the others. I suppose one of my hopes in life is to try to get Jews, Christians and Muslims to realize the profound unanimity, the unanimous vision that they share, and to join hands together to stop the kind of cruelty, violence and obscenity, moral obscenity that we saw on September the 11th." Karen Armstrong, author of A HISTORY OF GOD

listenHear more from Karen Armstrong (15:54) or read the transcript.

"Islam is a religion that is based upon not only the faith in the one God and surrender to him, but also upon the peace the ensues from that." -- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor of Islamic Studies

listenHear more from Seyyed Hossein Nasr (25:10) or read the transcript. (PDF) (DVD/VHS)

In the series THE WISDOM OF FAITH WITH HUSTON SMITH, Bill Moyers queried the religious scholar about his own faith — saying "Is God an objective reality to you?" Smith responded: "Yes. I would want to qualify that....My conviction does not stay on an even keel all the time, and there are desert periods of the spirit. — 'Well, I've got the spiritual flu,'...but by and large my answer to the question is, 'Yes.'"

Read the transcript (PDF)

Hear more from Huston Smith about the wonder and variety of world religions:
listenPrayer (4:33)
listenHinduism (4:57)
listenIslam (5:16)
listenChristianity (3:04)
listenJudaism (7:48)
listenBuddhism (3:40)

Know Your Spiritual Type?
Take this online quiz at BeliefNet to determine what religious, or non-religious, philosophy most suits your beliefs.

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Even if one doesn't have faith in God, is there some ineffable aspect to our existence in the universe that demands reverence? Is transcendence possible without God? Here, authors discuss the metaphysical elements that make us more than just spiritless machines.

Jeanette Winterson: "There are vast dimensions of which I know nothing, but sometimes I can apprehend them a little bit. So I think that in religious terms that sometimes I think of it as the kick of joy in the universe. It's the moment when you feel that the whole thing is bigger than you, better than you, and you connect with an energy which is gigantic. And I think writers and artists do feel that. I hope that people who are not writers and artists feel that. It is a moment which is absolutely true, and it absolutely cannot be proved by science. But you feel it."

Anne Provoost: "What I believe in is the strength that can come from an ethical conscience, and that we should all nourish and try to educate, and that we should try to have. And when I define that for myself, it's probably going to come very close to the definition that most people who believe in God have of their religious beliefs. So, we're very linked. Only, I don't call it God. But it's the same concept. I call it ethics."

Salman Rushdie: "I've been trying all my life, in a way, to try and find a language to express our sense of what is not material without having recourse to the ready-made ideas of religions."

Pema Chodron: "I do have a lot of faith. But my main faith is that sentient beings have the capacity to awaken all beings. And that given the right causes and conditions, many people who are sort of neutral and could get caught by the seduction of aggression could equally be swayed towards peace and love and kindness, because people have that capacity in them."

"What I think is really important is not to make this into a distinction between believers and non-believers. But between, if you like, rationalists and fundamentalists. Within both a theological tradition and a secular tradition. Because I think there's a lot of common ground that gets missed when people simply say, you know, 'Are we gonna talk about it theologically? Are we gonna talk about it philosophically?' I think there's a lot of common ground." -- Susan Neiman, author of THE IDEA OF EVIL

listenHear more from Susan Neiman (21:43) or read the transcript.

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Did morality begin with the Ten Commandments or does the human sense of right and wrong exist independent of religious codes?

Salman Rushdie: "I would argue, that our sense of good and evil, our sense of right and wrong, our moral sense precedes religion. It's not created by it. It is, in fact, what creates our need for religion....My view has been, quite simply, that religion has been one of the ways in which human beings, throughout history, have tried to codify and organize their moral sense of the world."

Colin McGinn: "One of the things about God is everything you, as a moral being, do is under the scrutiny of this being who's gonna reward you or not, as the case may be. I think it compromises people's moral sense, because they feel as if everything they do which is good, they're doing it because God will approve of them and reward them for it. Once you jettison that idea, you do what you should, because you should, because it's the right thing to do and that you don't feel that there's always some sense of self-interest involved in any moral action that you perform.

"The Golden Rule exists in every culture. Confucius speaks of it. Buddhists speak of it. The Bhagavad-Gita speaks of it, and, of course, the Bible speaks of it...To the extent it's honored even a little more, there is an improvement." -- Sissela Bok

listenHear more from Sissela Bok (17:17) or read the transcript. (PDF)

Colin McGinn: Well, I think that morality is also a rational belief system. We can justify our moral beliefs. We can have intelligent arguments about moral questions. If we're discussing capital punishment, we can have an argument about it. We can discuss that rationally. We don't just say, "Well, I believe capital punishment is wrong and you don't believe it's wrong." And that's the end of it.

"I believe that all the great religions teach that the truth ultimately is realized in and through the quality of one's actions in relation to the world." --Steven Rockefeller, Professor of Religion

listenHear more from Steven Rockefeller (26:01) or read the transcript (PDF)

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While the words faith and belief tend to be used somewhat interchangeably in theological discussions, there has long been an effort among writers and theologians to differentiate between the two. Just what the subtle distinction is, however, has become a source of debate.

Religious scholar Elaine Pagels laid out her thoughts in an interview with Bill Moyers:

"Faith is a quality of relationship. One has faith. And faith can be verified in experience. If I have faith in you, or you have faith in me, it can be betrayed, or it can be verified. Belief can be a system. It can be, but many people say Christian tradition traditionally said, 'Well, believe in this. You have no verification, but you're just supposed to take it on somebody else's word.' That's very different from verifying in experience the faith that comes through relationship with another person, or with a divine source."
listenHear more from Elaine Pagels (48:12) or read the transcript

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Perspectives - What do you think?
"I think that 'faith' is used all too casually. It is used as a shorthand for monotheistic religion...What of other religions and spiritual beliefs? Many other religions exist, such as Buddhism and Neo-Paganism, that see no conflict between spirituality and science. It is because we do not disdain the material world as 'sinful' or 'fallen,' we embrace and celebrate it as beautiful and sacred!"
-- viewer email


"Faith is believing things by definition, which are not justified by reason. If it were justified by reason, it wouldn't be faith. It would just be ordinary belief. It's something you can't prove. That's what faith is, believing something you can't prove."
-- Colin McGinn


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